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The YLD answers frequently asked 3L questions about resumes and cover letters

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Job Seeker Sharing a Resume

The ABA Young Lawyers Division has heard you may have a question (or 5) about what to do with your resume, cover letters, and applications as a 3L. We get it—there’s a lot to sort through. So, we asked a few of our Division’s rockstar leaders—and #lawtwitter—for best practices and responses to your nagging questions.

Resume Basics

Should I list experience first now that I’ve graduated?

Education will stay on top, until you’ve gained 2-3 years post-graduate experience.

What is the correct way to list your JD on your resume?

Assuming you’ve spelled out your undergraduate degree, it should be listed as Juris Doctor or Doctor of Jurisprudence. If you’re not sure if your school has a particular styling with the title, check their site. Juris Doctorate is not the appropriate format.

Should I list my GPA? Class rank?

Typically, you would not list a GPA below 3.0. If you do not list your law school GPA, you should not list your undergraduate GPA either. Keep in mind that when the GPA is not listed, employers may ask a question about your grades. Be prepared to respond in a manner that is not defensive.

On class rank, opinions vary a bit, but we recommend listing if you’re in the top 10%, top 25%, or even top 50%. You don’t want the employer to think you are in the bottom 50%.

How do I mention that I passed the bar and am authorized to practice law?

Add a line under your existing heading that states that you are a “Admitted in state, year. For example, write Admitted in Maryland, 2021. If you are admitted in multiple jurisdictions, you can have a section that lists your bar admissions and court admissions.

How do I state that I’m awaiting results/authorization?

“______ Bar (awaiting results)” or “______ Bar (pending authorization)”

Does my resume really have to be one page?

You can go to two pages, if you have practical experience that warrants being on two pages. You should not exceed two pages. Though lawyers love bragging on themselves and others, most employers will not work through more than two pages at the most.

I want my resume to stand out. Can I use borders, fancy fonts, bright colors, etc?

No. Your resume should stand out for your accomplishments, not because it’s unprofessional. However, you could bold certain items- job titles, or particular experiences, to highlight those items.

If I can’t use fancy fonts or a bright colored background, how do I stand out?

Show your expertise by using appropriate professional language for the relevant practice area you are targeting (i.e. in job descriptions use phrases such as Merger and Acquisitions if you are targeting a job in that area). Discuss specific activities you have done (drafted a motion, argued at hearing). If you are targeting a prosecutor or public defender job and have interned there include a trial log.

Should I send all employers the same resume?

Not necessarily. You can tailor your resume the same way you tailor your cover letter. But, we get you’re probably sending your resume out very broadly. Perhaps have a few canned resumes that highlight different skills- for example, maybe a government-focused resume and a firm-focused resume. You could also have resumes focused on your experience in different areas of the law (for example, health law or bankruptcy).  Make sure you are highlighting experience/skills that will be useful to the prospective employer.

Should I list my high school?

No.

Should I list specific classes on my resume?

No, unless you received a CALI award/highest grade for the class. Otherwise, relevant coursework can be listed in your cover letter.

Should I include …

  • Objectives? No, that’s taken care of in your cover letter.
  • “References available upon request” at the bottom? No, references should be a separate sheet – and the expectation is that they’re always available upon request.
  • Personal information (i.e. age, kids, etc…)? No. There are certain things an employer can’t ask. Do not place them in an awkward situation.
  • Pictures? No! (See personal information)
  • Volunteer/unpaid/clinical intern positions? Absolutely! It is still valuable experience even if it was unpaid. That is why it’s an “Experience”, and not an “Employment”, section.
  • Publications? Absolutely! You will likely work on research and writing projects, show off your prior skills.
  • Journal? Yes. This shows off your ability to research and write.
  • Moot Court? Yes. Shows off oral/written advocacy. Include competitions, where possible.
  • Languages? Absolutely. In an increasingly global economy, this can be an asset. Make sure you use the appropriate level of fluency (Conversation, Proficient, Fluent)
  • Student Organizations? Yes. Especially if you were actively involved or held a leadership position.
  • Community Involvement? Yes. Especially if you are applying to public sector positions.

Cover Letters and Writing Samples

Do I need to send a cover letter?

Typically, you should send a cover letter. Unless the employer specifically lists application materials. Cover letters allow you to expand on information in your resume or items not appropriate for your resume (i.e. relevant coursework), and to stand out. If an application allows a cover letter but doesn’t require it, someone who sends one and better highlights their experience may stand out over you just sending your resume alone.

How long is appropriate for a writing sample?

Typically, your writing sample should be 5-10 pages. You should add a cover page where you can explain in a couple of sentences what you’re sending. EXCEPTION: You can send longer writing samples, including notes/comments and published articles, if the application asks for it.

How many references should I list?

Typically, you should send 3 legal references. No more than 5.

What’s the difference between a reference and a recommendation?

  • References – List of people that can be called/e-mailed to verify your ability to do the job.
  • Recommendations – Letters written on your behalf detailing your ability.

They asked for a transcript. Does it have to be official?

Unless they specifically ask for an official transcript, it can be unofficial. Don’t ask the employer if they need an official or unofficial.

Timing

When should I start applying for jobs?

Depends. Public Sector/Government/Judicial positions have set deadlines. Start applying by early 3L for public sector jobs at the latest; check out the Arizona Public Interest Handbook.

Some law firms will hire you pending your bar results. Other law firms will wait until you are an authorized attorney. Sometimes your schools bar passage rate plays a part in this or it can be regional. You should reach out to your career services counselor regarding timing in your particular region.

What should I do after I take the bar and before I get my results?

Research employers, practice areas, and geographic locations. Apply to positions. Intern/clerk (even if that is on a volunteer/pro bono basis with a public sector agency). We know that you may or may not have the ability to exercise your legal skills on an unpaid basis, but try to maintain some connection to the law even if holding non-legal jobs.

Does temporary work / contract work look bad on my resume to employers?

Employers understand that you need a paying job. You should balance this out by volunteering somewhere or taking on research projects, pro bono cases, etc.

I am sending out resumes/applications but I am not hearing back from anyone, what should I do?

Patience. Employers receive hundreds of applications for each open position. You can/should follow up with employers, but one follow up call is acceptable. There is a thin line between following up and harassing.

There is a ton of value in networking with practicing attorneys in the geographic or practices areas that you are interested in. Reach out to attorneys and ask to have coffee or lunch and make sure to follow up with them or any other attorneys that they suggest reaching out to. Make sure in these conversations to focus on the attorney and learning from their lessons and not immediately (or even directly) making an ask for them to give you direct help in your job search.

I don’t have that much/any legal experience because of … where should I start?

Intern a couple of days in an area of interest. The sooner you can start this the better.

If you’ve already graduated, this demonstrates your commitment to the employer/area of law.

Is it better to take a paid non-legal job or, if financially feasible, an unpaid legal job if something does not work out right away?

If you want to practice “traditional law”, an unpaid legal job is better.

Remember the further in time you are from your last legal experience, the harder it is. So, to the extent that you can balance a paying job with gaining legal experience, you should.

Consider the transferable skills you will acquire in the non-legal position.

Is this a path to an alternative career? If so, it may be worth considering.

If I’m not in the top of my class, what other qualities or training should I focus on in my cover letter and resume to still stand out?

  • Practical experience (internships, clinics, etc…)
  • Publications
  • Journals/Moot Court/Mock Trial
  • Student Organizations/Leadership positions
  • Relevant coursework (cover letter)
  • CLEs/Bar involvement

Is it better to be very field-specific in my classes and work experience, for example, all family law focused, or to show a variety?

Depends. If you have hands-on experience in a certain area, and like it, then field-specific can show commitment to those employers.

If you are uncertain, the important part is focusing on the skills that are transferable from area to area (i.e. research, writing, litigation skills, client interaction, etc…)

Why should I spend time networking?

While there are many benefits, there is one simple answer. Most jobs aren’t posted. The more people you know, and know you, the better.

What resources are available to me? I don’t really know any attorneys.

  • Alumni office
  • Career services
  • Stay in touch with professors and classmates
  • Attend networking events and meet new people
  • Get involved in local, state, national, and affinity bar associations